Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Characteristics that Cultivate Christian Community - 1 Peter 3:8

Audio available here

A little nursery rhyme that was taught to us as children says, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row.” Roald Dahl wrote a parody of the rhyme that went like this: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? I live with my brat in a high-rise flat so how in the world would I know?" Some of us have no problem getting a garden to grow, but I just can’t seem to do it. It seems to me that the chipmunks want the stuff more than I do, so I have given up and let them have it. Everyone wants to help me out a little bit, saying “make sure you do this and make sure you do that.” But no matter what, my garden doesn’t grow. I have concluded that I do not have the ability to cultivate a garden.

God is also cultivating something like a garden for Himself, filled with His people. Thankfully, He doesn’t have the troubles I have with it. He plants the seed of His word into the soil of our hearts, and new life in Christ sprouts up. And it is like the most glorious flower garden you have ever seen. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in southwest London is home to more than 30,000 varieties of plants. They are diverse in shape, size, color, fragrance. In the garden of His people that God is cultivating, there is also great diversity. But God is bringing all these different people together into one body under the Lordship of Christ. They are connected to the Lord by faith, and connected to each other in Him. This garden is the Church of Jesus Christ, and it is a community of lives that are intertwined through mutual faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Earlier in 2:4-9, Peter described in vivid imagery the doctrine of the church. There he said that we are being fitted together as living stones, built upon the chief cornerstone of Jesus Christ. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. We have a commission to proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light. With this understanding, this right belief of who we are, Peter now gives a summary of the characteristics that must exist in the lives of God’s people if the church is to be what God created it to be. These attributes cannot be produced in our lives apart from the Holy Spirit of God transforming us as we surrender to the Gospel, as we live under the Lordship of Christ and the authority of His Word. But notice that they are still imperative commands, indicating that we must not resist the movement of the Spirit in shaping us along these lines. We must rather cooperate with the Spirit by obeying these commands.

Out west, there is this little saying that pastors sometimes say, but only out west. They say, “Ministry would be easy if it weren’t for people.” Of course the irony of that statement is that people are our ministry. If there were no people there would be no ministry. Another little slogan that gets passed around sometimes goes like this: “To live above with the saints we love, that will be glory. But to dwell below with the saints we know, well, that’s another story.” If we stop and think about it for a moment, what is the most frustrating thing about church life, or any other part of life for that matter? Is it not relationships with other people? And why is this? It is because we are all sinners. It is not just that I have to put up with a bunch of sinners, but also that I myself am a sinner. We are going to disagree with each other, disappoint each other, frustrate each other, and sometimes anger each other. It is true in the church, it is true at home, it is true where you work, eat, shop, exercise, and anywhere else where two or more sinners are gathered. And I am just as likely to blame as the next person. I am just as prone to say or do the wrong thing as he or she is; and I am also prone to misinterpret, overreact, prejudge, or otherwise misconstrue what someone else does. And so within the church, we are surrounded by all of this imperfection, yet we are gathered together for the sake of, and for the glory of, the only Perfect One, the Triune God whom we worship. As Dave Harvey has written, in the church we “join our imperfect selves with other imperfect selves to form an imperfect community—all for the glory of God.”

Now in order for all of this imperfection to exist in such close proximity, certain characteristics need to be manifest. What are these characteristics that cultivate Christian community?

I. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Harmony

Some of you have the ability to read music. I cannot. The notes on a piece of printed music are utterly meaningless to me. I tried singing in a choir once, and it wasn’t pretty. I didn’t know what part I was supposed to sing. And when they pointed out the line I was supposed to be looking at, I had no idea what all those little dots and things meant. When you look at a piece of music, such as we find in our hymnals, often you see multiple notes stacked on top of each other. Those who know how to read it understand that it means that the sopranos sing one note, the altos another, the tenors another, and the basses another. When you hear this choir sing, they are singing four different notes at the same time, but they are singing the same song from the same page. The beautiful sound that you hear is called harmony. The same is true of a symphony. All the musicians are playing different notes on different instruments, but their sounds come through together and form one great piece of music in our ears. What we hear is not the diversity of each individual part, but the unity of the whole. The diverse instruments and notes and sounds blend together in such a way that what you hear is actually more pleasing than if they were all singing or playing the same notes.

The choir is not the only place in the church where harmony needs to be found. Harmony needs to be pervasive through the entire church at all times. And I am not just talking about musical harmony. When we are harmonious with one another, we recognize that there are differences. We don’t all look the same or talk the same. We don’t all come from the same backgrounds and may not even speak the same language. There is a great diversity among us. And like in singing, what binds us together is the fact that we are all on the same page. We have harmony with one another as we appreciate each others’ differences, but moreover we celebrate our commonalities, namely that we follow the same Lord, we are saved by the same Savior, we are indwelt by the same Spirit, and we are under the authority of the same truth, the Word of God.

A person who lacks harmony disrupts the unity of Christian fellowship by demanding that others become uniform with himself or herself, i.e., that others have the same opinions on every minor issue, or that others agree as to how certain things are to be done, when there are really a variety of possibilities, etc. Harmony recognizes that there is great diversity among us, but that we bring our diverse and imperfect selves together around the Word of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ to make something more beautiful than uniformity can produce. Harmony is not uniformity, but it is unity, a sense of togetherness, as we stand together with others who are different from us on the common ground of the Gospel.

II. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Sympathy

Over the last week or so, many of you have sent me cards following the death of my grandfather. We call these “sympathy cards.” Usually, we understand “sympathy” to mean something like “feeling sorry for someone.” But the word that Peter uses here goes deeper than this. It means “to suffer together.”

It would be one thing to stand on the top of a mountain, and to see someone suffering in the valley below, and look down on them with pity. “Oh what a shame,” we might say. It is something altogether different when we see that suffering and make the treacherous journey down into the valley of suffering to come along side of that person. Sympathy indicates that we actually “suffer together” with them. We go down into the valley and walk through it with them. Their hardships become our hardships. We do not show a pity that expresses without words, “Oh how I wish your life could be as good as mine right now.” We say with word and deed, “Brother, sister, because all is not right with you, all is not well with me.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the phrase “life together” to describe Christian fellowship. Your life and my life are wrapped up together because of our mutual relationship to Christ. So not only do we suffer together, we also rejoice together, as Paul says in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” When something good happens to our brother or sister in the faith, something good has happened to us all. We do not look upon them with envy, covetousness, and jealousy, we come along side of them and say, “Your successes are my successes because we live together in Christ.” So, if we are to live rightly under the Lordship of Christ, there must be this kind of sympathy, this kind of mutual affection for one another, that shares together in the joys and sufferings of life.

III. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Brotherly Love

Across from City Hall in Philadelphia is Love Park. At the center of the park is the famous and often photographed sculpture of the word LOVE. The reason why this word is found in the center of that city is that the word “Philadelphia” is the Greek word for “brotherly love.” It is found here: the word is philadelphos. We are indeed brothers and sisters to one another under the fatherhood of God in His family.

Growing up, my brother was considerably older than I was so we did not do many things together. I will never forget the day when I was playing in the dirt while my brother was at football practice, and I met a boy named Will. His brother was also much older than he was, and like me, he was just looking for something to do and someone to do it with. We became the best of friends that day. Interestingly, we also looked very much alike, and people would often ask if we were brothers. So, we began to pretend that we were twins. On one occasion, we even tried to fool our elementary school teachers by switching places in class, and it almost worked! But we were only pretend brothers. It was a game we were playing. It was fun and we enjoyed it, but we were not brothers in any real sense of the word.

Now, often when we speak of being brothers and sisters to one another in Christ, we are tempted to think that it is just pretend, just imaginary, just a fun game we are playing. No, far from it, this family is as real as any other. When viewed in light of eternity, we might even say it is more real than all other family ties. Those of you who grew up with siblings know that you didn’t always get along, did you? Sometimes you would get on each other’s nerves and argue and squabble about things. But did you ever stop loving each other or cease to be family? Of course not. Family ties are a bond that is deeper than petty differences and irksome irritations. And the same is true in God’s family. Sometimes, our brothers and sisters will annoy and agitate us. But we don’t leave the family, and we don’t kick them out of the family for that. We are brothers and sisters. God is our Father. The commitment between us is a permanent bond that we must labor to preserve for the sake of our Father. And we must allow nothing to sever that bond. Christian community forms around this bond, where we love one another, and where we know that we are loved by one another, and that no power of earth or hell can sever that tie.

IV. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Kindheartedness

Have you ever felt something so strongly, an emotion, a grief, a joy, a fear, an affection, that it made your stomach hurt? I’m sure we all have, if we would admit the fact. That’s odd isn’t it? What do my emotions have to do with my intestines? The ancients observed this phenomenon in their own bodies and concluded that the internal organs like the intestines must be the seat of emotion and affection. So, they came to use the Greek word for intestines to describe pity, compassion, and kindness toward others. That is the case here. The word we find in the original language is a compound of a prefix that means “good” and the root that means “internal organs, bowels, or intestines.” That would not make sense to us today if we said that Christian community required a characteristic of good-guttedness. We no longer view the intestines as the seat of emotion, though ironically, we still feel it there. Today we speak of the heart. We talk about heartaches, and heart-breaks, and things that are heart-warming. To our sensitivities that sounds better, doesn’t it? We would not really want to tell someone, “I am suffering from a tremendous bowel-ache.”

So, for our sake, the translators have rendered this word as kindhearted. In the family of God, the Church of Jesus Christ, our hearts are to be moved with genuine kindness toward one another. I should be seeking to do good to that person, to act favorably toward them, in a genuinely kind way. Throughout the Gospels we see this characteristic in the person of Jesus Christ, where it is usually translated as compassion. He had compassion on those whom He saw as sheep without a shepherd; He had compassion on those who needed healing; He had compassion on those who were without food and He fed them. Two of the most endearing characters in Jesus’ parables are described as having this kind of compassion: the father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:20) and the man we know as the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:33). In each of these cases, kindness is shown to those who do not necessarily deserve it. But Christ shows compassion to them, as the prodigal’s father, and the good Samaritan, out of genuine kindness.

So, where brothers and sisters in Christ show this kind of compassion and kindness to one another, where we are moved in our innermost being to act for the good of one another, Christian community will be cultivated.

V. Christian Community is Cultivated where there is Humility

Did you hear about the man who won a medal for being humble? They took it away from him because he wore it. Humility is a funny thing isn’t it? We know we are supposed to have it, but the moment we begin to recognize it in ourselves, we can become proud of it and undo it all. And of course, humility can be faked at times too. A person can discover that the deflection of praise and compliments actually gains them more praise and compliments and so they maintain a veneer of humility while internally becoming more puffed up and proud. Sometimes, people demonstrate humility outwardly, but it is not a true reflection of their inner person.

That is not the kind of humility that Peter is talking about here. He speaks of a humility of spirit, which is actually just one word in Greek. It means humility of the mind, or an internal humility. This is not just an external show, it is an internal state of being. This kind of humility recognizes that I am not better than anyone else, and that others in fact need to be regarded as more important than myself. That is what Paul says in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” And he follows that with the great statement about having the same mind as Christ had, who humbled Himself to become a man and die on the cross for us, and was exalted by God the Father. This is a spiritual law; Jesus said it Himself: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt 23:12). That doesn’t mean we embrace humility as a path to exaltation (that’s hardly humble). But it means that we humble ourselves in the confidence that Jesus is Lord and God is sovereign, and if we are to be exalted at all it will be in His way in His time. God does not need me to be my own public relations promoter. My job is to humble myself and to leave the rest to him.

In the pagan society of Peter’s day, humility was not considered a virtue outside the church. To call someone humble in that day would have been an insult. I once read, but I have forgotten where, that prior to the New Testament, this word was never used in Graeco-Roman writings to describe a positive attribute. Therefore we can say that it is a distinctly Christian virtue. But our present society is much like that ancient one. Humility is lost in our world of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion today. And this creeps into the church when one person exalts himself or herself above others and looks down on others as inferior or of lesser importance. This kind of self-centered arrogance will rupture Christian fellowship, and certainly it is no true reflection of Jesus Christ who described Himself as “humble in heart” (Matt 11:29). But where genuine humility is found, a rich sense of Christian community will be cultivated.

So, from this list of five attributes found in verse 8, we see that Christian character demonstrates itself in attributes that lead to the building up of godly relationships. Harmony, sympathy, brotherly love, kindheartedness, and genuine humility are all about having the right attitudes and characteristics in us that enable us to have healthy fellowship with others. Where these are absent, there will be division, disunity, and discord among the brethren. But where they are present, as the Spirit of God produces them in us and we cooperate with His working by obeying these commands, there is a beautiful fellowship like that described by the Psalmist when he said, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes.” Just as that oil symbolized the setting apart of Israel’s priests for God’s holy purposes, so when the church dwells together in unity, in depth of fellowship and in genuine community, we are likewise fit for God’s holy use as priests to one another and indeed to the world. Our unity in the body of Christ speaks to the outside world. Jesus said that when we are one with each other, the world will believe that the Father has sent the Son into the world, that God loves the world. Where our lives are marked by these relational characteristics, God is showing Himself to the world through our fellowship.

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